Eugene Robinson Live

Jun 11, 2013

Read Eugene Robinson's latest column: "NSA leaks cannot be ignored." Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and shhhhh -- the NSA may be listening. Welcome to our regular chat, which this week we're conducting under the Cone of Silence to avoid being overheard. As you've guessed, my obsession today is what we've learned in the past week about the National Security Agency's massive program to collect data about all of our phone calls -- plus e-mails and other communications from some who are unfortunate enough to live outside the United States. Secret snooping approved by secret rubber-stamp courts and secret congressional committee sessions? Did anyone ask you about all of this, because I don't recall anyone asking me. Let's talk about it -- plus anything else that's on your minds. But keep your voices down...

Gene, Its hard to take these complaints seriously about the lack of privacy. We live in a world where Facebook and twitter monitor all our communications. They know if we have kids, if we are single (what are preferences are if we are single). At least in this case the information was being used for good. I trust that the NSA will use my data more judiciously than some person in Silicon Valley trying to figure out how to get an extra buck from advertising. I understand the complaints, but in today's world I'm not sure how much water they hold as long as we don't use them for anything but terrorism investigations.

I disagree. Yes, I know that the internet behemoths collect data on us. But at least I know what it's being used for -- they want to make money by bombarding me with ads, or by selling the data to someone else who will bombard me with ads. I also know that the data won't be kept forever, because it's expensive to store. The NSA, on the other hand, apparently plans to keep all this "metadata" forever. I know what it's being used for now, but what will it be used for ten years from now? Or twenty? So should there at least be a sunset provision requiring the data to be purged in x years? Shouldn't we talk about issues like this?

Agree, Disagree? I'm really amused by the supporters of the PATRIOT act that seem so shocked about PRISM. I didn't like the PATRIOT act, and I don't like PRISM, but I'm hardly shocked to hear about it. We accepted fear based policies once, what's to keep them from happening more?

It seems to me (a non-lawyer) that PRISM, the overseas data-collection program, flows pretty directly from the Patriot Act. I've been told that the other program, the collection of domestic phone data, draws its authority from a really expansive interpretation of the Patriot Act, one that some lawyers would challenge. If they ever got the chance.

Some in Congress have called the actions of NSA leaker Snowden to be treason. That cannot be correct. Treason consists of aiding and abetting America's enemies. Snowden aided and abetted the American public. Unless we, the public, are America's enemies, treason cannot lie. Only a police state would claim the public is the enemy. We are not a police state, are we? Snowden may have committed various crimes, but treason is not one of them.

I'm not sure it's treason, either, but I'm sure he will face criminal charges, possibly under the Espionage Act of 1917. I also think he'd have a better case for seeing this as an act of civil disobedience if he hadn't hightailed it to Hong Kong, rather than stay to face the consequences.

Support rolling back the Patriot Act and reigning in the NSA while expanding privacy rights or you get primaried in 2014. I think that would have some support in both parties.

Look at the polls that are out today. Majorities say they favor surrendering some privacy for security. I think those numbers could shift as people become more aware of what the NSA is apparently doing, but I doubt they'll shift enough to make this a winning issue in 2014.

Yeah Facebook et al collect data to bombard you with ads -- but they want to sell you stuff. What I find unnerving is the secret collection of massive amounts of data combined with a complete lack of due process for anyone suspected of terrorism -- so if the govt. puts two and two together and comes up with 29, they can send a drone after you--and you have no recourse to argue maybe they're wrong? Don't tell me this won't happen--it is inevitable. I guess the Obama Administration will call that "collateral damage?"

I understand why drone warfare is here to stay, whether we like it or not. And I believe it has been effective in decimating the command structure of al-Qaeda. But I am troubled by the so-called "signature" strikes targeting people who appear to be acting like terrorists, even though we don't exactly know who they are. 

Isn't the other side of the coin that we've contracted with companies to be able to make calls and send emails, and it's naive to think that your privacy is guaranteed. I'm sure it's not part of the agreement you sign when you open an account. That's the price of having the luxury of email and phone.

You can't imagine how much it pains me to sound like Rand Paul, but when I click "Accept" at the end of all that fine print, I'm aware that I'm surrendering a lot of privacy to a private company. But I didn't know I was also surrendering that privacy to the government, as authorized by secret court orders that I'm not allowed to know about. I believe there's a difference.

is the congresspersons on both sides of the aisle (those in the know) who think we already had the public debate and approved these programs. When was this debate? And why if its just metadata (as they are now saying to reassure us) is it so top secret to even know they're collecting it. Color me confused.

Me too. I also missed this alleged debate. And it seems to me that people who argue this is no big deal should be at pains to simultaneously argue that it had to be kept secret.

So wait. You're saying that publicly releasing documentation of how we track terrorists is not aiding and abetting the enemy?

Like I said, I'm not a lawyer. I don't know, for example, what role (if any) intent plays in convicting someone under the Espionage Act. I don't think the information published so far has done great damage to our national security. However, I knos that editors at the Post and Guardian deemed some of the presentation slides supplied by Snowden unsuitable for publication on national security grounds. Like I said in the column this morning, the jury is not in.

I'm honestly not sure what I think about the data gathering information. However, I have formed a pretty strong impression of Snowden, and it's not a complimentary one. He seems pretty full of himself, as he describes his reasons for doing this (HE thinks that the data mining is wrong. Who made him the arbiter of right and wrong in this situation??). He also seems like a bit of a coward, as evidenced by his running off to Hong Kong and then leaving the hotel (maybe after hearing the news reports that said he probably wasn't safe from extradition there). Even if I end up deciding that I'm glad he leaked, I doubt it will make him look better to me.

I called him "a legend in his own mind," and that's how he comes across to me. 

Gene, Government defenders of these surveillance programs keep saying that if the American people knew the truth, then everyone would understand the need for being spied upon...and then they say that the people cannot be told the truth because we are not intelligent or mature enough to deal with reality. Is Jack Nicholson in charge of the NSA? Sincerely, Waiting to be told the truth in Alexandria

Apparently, all together now, "You...can't...handle...the truth!"

I listened to his interview yesterday and found him more articulate and sympathetic than expected, but I can't shake a sense of smugness and superiority about him. I don't know that I want a 29 year old with no particular expertise making governmental decisions for me. What do you think?

Well, there are lots of obvious questions. First, how does a computer guy, working for a contractor, in an NSA branch office in Hawaii... how does that guy get hold of this super-duper top-secret information? How is he able to copy it and take it out of the building? All the way to Hong Kong? 

I fully expect the NSA to do whatever it can to collect whatever it can on whomever it can. I also fully expect it to keep to its mission- protecting the Nation- targeted towards terrorism and adverse nations seeking to do harm to the United States. Thus I fully support what it does- until the day a law enforcement agency uses a "tip" from NSA to disrupt a crime- even as heinous as murder- especially when that tip came from PRISM or the like. At that point, the agency have overstepped its bounds and will have exceeded its authorization. Working for Homeland Security, as I do now, I can say with confidence that yes, agencies can protect information that is collected for a certain purpose, despite others wanting to get access to it. Thus I'm confident that the NSA can do this- until somebody- Snowden or the like- decide they should not obey their authorizing legislation.

So have you heard any ironclad assurance that this data can never, ever be used for any other purpose? 

I'm genuinely torn. Governments DO need secrets. And we don't govern by public referendum in this country.

Of course governments need secrets, and our government still has plenty of them. The fact that the government is tracking all of our phone calls seems too big a deal to be kept from us.

The NSA acting like any other company- collecting information. It's actually even doing it the most legitimate way possible- seeking and being gratned permission directly from the Giants. I think this would be a completely different story if it came out that NSA had secretly engineered a backdoor into the companies without their knowledge. But we should view the NSA as any normal advertiser that has legitimately gained access to our data (even if the companies cut the NSA a large break that they may not have afforded others).

Not exactly. Remember that in both cases -- the phone data and the PRISM program -- the companies are being compelled to provide information under court order (from the secret Fisa court). The internet giants listed as participating in PRISM have apparently made it more convenient for the NSA to get what it wants. Some companies, apparently including Twitter, don't make it easy. But one way or another, they all have to comply. So this isn't a case of the government being "granted permission" at all.

When privacy groups say they are "concerned" about potential slippery slopes, I take note. But where do these slopes actually lead -- and I mean realistically, not worse case scenario? Do I really need to be concerned that the NSA is going to listen into my phone conversations? And should I even care if they do? I'd feel sorry for whoever would have to sit and take notes of my mundane conversations. I don't want to be naive or complacent, but do I really have to fear fire every time I see something that looks or smells like smoke?

No, and this is just the kind of discussion we should be having. We may, as a nation, decide that what the NSA is doing is acceptable. But nobody asked us.

...journalistic confidential sources are traced through phone calls and emails with journalists? The potential for retaliation (even punishment) is immense.

It has already happened. Phone calls and e-mails were used in the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen to build an Espionage Act case against his source.

The man says he doesn't have to hide -- as he hides out in Hong Kong. If this was true, why isn't he at his home in the U.S.? He has every reason to hide, and I don't blame him for doing so, but why the melodrama of acting like a martyr when he's on the run? It makes me wonder whether the man is truly trying to do what he believes is the right thing, or if he is suffering from illusions of grandeur and self importance? Is this about morality or his ego? I really can't tell.

I'm pretty confident that it's both.

I firmly believe that if the cumulative scandals of the past 45 days had been uncovered at this time last year, Mr. Obama would have lost the election. Is that a knee-jerk reaction from a Republican or am I just in denial?

Let it go. Get on with your life.

I'm kind of surprised by how naive some people seem to be. It's not that the public can't handle the truth or doesn't deserve to know. It's that by revealing things to the American public they reveal things to the world that they don't want the rest of us knowing. No one is concerned that WE may have seen sensitive information, it's that our enemies would be able to see it too.

There are a lot of things that you and I have no business knowing. The fact that our phone calls are being logged by our own government isn't one of them, in my opinion.

Maybe part of the problem is privatizing national security, where a company's profit motive can trump its hiring judgment.

We could do a whole hour on the privatization of security and intelligence. Don't get me started.

What is the potential damage done in leaking the NSA information? What advantage does this give terrorists or enemies of the state? Is there any actionable information that was revealed? Can they now use other means of communication that would avoid this? Of course, that assumes the govt isn't tracking those other means too.

I honestly don't know what the damage is. And I assume that if someone from the NSA or the CIA told me, they'd have to kill me.


Time's up, folks. Thanks for participating in a lively chat. And if anybody from the NSA has been listening, um, you do know that we put this up on the home page, right? 

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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